wechat_bg

2021-12-08 12:29:23

The system notification chimed softly: “A player has left the game.”

With his thumb and forefinger, 22-year-old Shao Xiaoxi pressed Alt + F4 on his keyboard and a prompt popped up, asking if he wanted to leave too. The “Leave” button was greyed out for five seconds as the game almost pleaded: “Your teammates need you!”

He took a deep breath and closed the prompt. The game ended as an explosion swept across the screen: “Defeat!”

Huddled in his small village in southwestern Hunan province, Shao is a professional gaming companion — a gamer paid to help clients win matches and ensure they have an entertaining experience.

Shao’s game of choice is League of Legends, owned by Tencent and played by over 100 million people in China. It pits two teams against each other in tactical five-on-five battles. The team that destroys the enemy base wins.

Like all professional gamers, Shao does not like to lose. Frustrated at the bout ending in defeat, he hurled his mouse so hard it bounced, knocking down the scattered items on his cluttered desk.

Among them: a curved monitor, a large rectangular glass ashtray, three brightly colored lighters, a few betel nuts, and two empty bottles. He says he has searched online for desks better suited to esports but the cheapest was 90 yuan ($14), much too expensive for him.

Back on screen, the game brought up the final score sheet, and his headset suddenly crackled with sounds of frantic clicking — “Brother T,” his client, had seen their rival’s scoresheet.

It was something all Shao’s clients did when they lost a game: check if the rivals were a “big squad,” composed of five professional gaming companions; a “small squad” with a few companions herding along one or two clients; a “local squad” of five friends; or just a group of complete strangers.

For Shao, this step was key: it determined whether he had to refund his clients for losing a match.

He assumed no liability for losing to a “big squad”; if it was a “little squad,” he would charge a little less. But if he and the client lost to groups of friends or strangers, it mandated a full refund.

Often, these negotiations took time — if they couldn’t reach an agreement, he and the client parted ways, the latter sometimes taking to social media to vent.

As a veteran gamer, Shao had already guessed that their rivals were a “little squad,” but Brother T was still incensed.

Shao took off his headset and dropped it onto the desk just as a barrage of insults blared from it. Brother T yelled: “How could we lose to that pack of mutts? You play like that and you have the gall to ask people for money? We only gain a few points for every win, but now we’ve lost 20 all at once!”

Shao isn’t very happy with his headset either, but a new one would set him back more than an upgraded desk.

His team’s private audio chat room has five members. At that moment, only Brother T had his microphone turned on; Shao could faintly discern a slew of obscenities. Brother T was so livid that Shao joked that he was worried that flecks of his spit would fly at him through the screen.

After a long rant, Brother T seemed to tire himself out. The other three professional gaming companions tried to reassure him: “Brother T, I’m sorry.” “Brother T, drink some water... it’s all my fault.”

Shao didn’t say a word — he felt he’d done his best. This unfortunately made him the target of Brother T’s fury: “Why aren’t you saying anything? Are you playing dead?”

He left the chatroom, opened WeChat, China’s superapp, and sent Brother T a refund of more than 3,000 yuan. Shao charges 50 yuan per hour of gaming — the refund was for around 60 hours that would now go unplayed.

Some time later, Brother T still hadn’t accepted the transfer. Shao sat immobile in his chair waiting. This ordinary office chair had no armrests or any back support. His arms and neck always ached as a result, he says, but a comfortable esports chair was still a luxury.

Like a proper desk and headset, the chair, too, was something that he could do without, as long as he could put up with the inconvenience.

Despite the outburst, Shao and Brother T are actually on good terms. “It’s just that Brother T has a temper and loves to complain,” says Shao. Sometimes, he’d rage over voice messages, but Shao knew how to placate him.

However, their relationship was more a business transaction than an actual friendship. Not long ago, Brother T had given him an advance of 5,000 yuan, and Shao had strived to fulfill his side of the deal. By the night of the match in November 2020, he’d already billed close to 2,000 yuan.

While waiting for Brother T to accept the refund, Shao signed up another client, Meizi. But as soon as Brother T replied, he immediately left the game with Meizi, offering a feeble excuse: “It’s pouring down here and I can hear thunder — I worry that I might be struck by lightning mid-match.”

Eventually, Brother T accepted the refund without a reply. Shao almost sent him a test message just to see if he had been blocked or deleted but changed his mind and simply removed the chat log from his home page.

Since becoming a professional gaming companion in 2018, Shao says he has begun to feel a little burnt out.

Amid China’s esports boom, the field of gaming companions is still in its infancy: it comprises young, often underage, gamers, who leverage the gig economy. But the profession is still unregulated, leaving most operating from a legal grey zone.

It’s why more and more gaming companions end up like Shao.

Michael Kraus/EyeEm/People Visual

Michael Kraus/EyeEm/People Visual

The esports dream

Shao Xiaoxi’s hometown is in Hunan Province, near the border with Guizhou province, along the winding Tuo River. This region is famous as the setting for Shen Congwen’s 1934 Chinese classic “Border Town.” Even today, it conjures up images of the rustic bliss that rural China offers.

Shao isn’t from the ancient town of Fenghuang, where the classic novel is based; His small village is just a 10-minute drive away in the same county. The few families who call the village home all live in little three-story buildings that overlook the fields.

Outside Shao’s window is a network of paths that crisscross vast swathes of farmland, dividing them into narrow plots.

But Shao knows little about farming — the small plot of land his family owns hasn’t been cultivated in decades. A member of the Miao ethnic minority group, his father worked as a cook and a foreman before settling into a tourism job, where he plans itineraries and accommodation in Fenghuang — also famous for its natural beauty and cultural history.

His father also runs a tea plantation on the side while his mother, who belongs to the Tujia ethnicity, does occasional odd jobs out of town. Shao’s younger sister studies at a teacher’s vocational high school in the neighboring city of Jishou, hoping to eventually work at a primary school.

The family has already prepared to move out of the village but they have yet to decide between the Fenghuang county seat and Jishou city.

Shao’s elementary school offered computer lessons, but he was never interested in the typing games they played during these classes. In sixth grade, however, Shao discovered an underground internet cafe in Fenghuang.

He recalls the time he first opened the cafe’s unmarked doors. The mix of laughter and furious trash-talk, the sound of the web administrator bossing people around, the robotic yet warm female voice of in-game announcements, and the pungent smell of instant noodles and fried rice mingled with cigarette smoke.

That was the moment esports took over his life.

In 2015, Shao dropped out of high school after failing several successive examinations. A year later, he discovered his talent for esports, particularly League of Legends.

Since his first foray into the game, it took him only one year to attain the highest rank in his server region. He accumulated more than 500 points — several times his grade for the senior high school entrance examination. The internet cafe frequently publicized his achievements, and he drew the attention of advanced players competing in the same rank.

In 2017, a friend asked him: “How about becoming a gaming companion? You could make a lot of money.” Later, another friend asked him, “Why don’t you join a youth training camp?”

Youth training is the only way to select professional esports players. It is generally organized by professional teams in Shanghai, China’s esports capital.

Sitting in his gaming haunt dubbed “Dream Chaser,” Shao made up his mind. At the time, he depended on participating in gaming events at the café to pay the internet fees. It felt to him as if fate had decided he would become a gaming companion.

In 2018, the popularity of esports surged across China when a Chinese team won the gold medal in a League of Legends match at the Asian Games in Jakarta, where esports was included as a demonstration sport. A few months later, another Chinese team, the Invictus Gaming club, claimed the League of Legends world championship title.

This succes triggered instant interest from state media in China, which rushed to report the esports milestones. Not only did this prompt the nation and the market to reconsider their view of esports almost overnight, but it also saw pro-esports salaries skyrocket.

Nestled in his corner of Hunan, Shao was unaware of the titanic changes in China’s gaming industry. He had stopped going to the Dream Chaser internet cafe and had started working as a gaming companion.

For a while, it was lucrative. He earned enough to buy his own computer, and shot to the top rank of his server region. By the time he turned 18, his annual income had exceeded 150,000 yuan, surpassing many graduates his age from top universities.

Not only was he financially independent — he also helped out at home. He transferred money to his mother in emergencies, paid for his sister’s living expenses, and occasionally financed her shopping sprees. Once, when she misplaced 5,000 yuan meant for fees, Shao stepped in to help.

Yan Junze of China looks at the camera during the Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, Aug. 27, 2018. Ding Yifan/People Visual

Yan Junze of China looks at the camera during the Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, Aug. 27, 2018. Ding Yifan/People Visual

Inside the industry

Amid the meteoric rise of esports in China, multiplayer online battle arena games or MOBA emerged as a product of growing social competitiveness in 2010.

Each match has a limited number of participants, divided into multiple camps. The sole purpose of these games is to cooperate with teammates and defeat rival camps. They also feature ranks based on players’ victory rates. Rising up the ladder is the most effective way to gain influence in the esports community.

A match usually lasts about 30 minutes. Players who obtain more virtual game currency in shorter periods can purchase more powerful equipment, which increases their chances of winning subsequent matches.

The ability to earn in-game currency depends on a player’s decision-making skills, reactivity, and overall proficiency. In addition to natural talent, people who aspire to excel also need to invest substantial time and money to practice.

Every match starts afresh: different opponents and new teammates. This unpredictability sometimes directly affects the outcome of the bout. It’s also the reason casual players hire gaming companions: they hope to avoid poor game experiences with unskilled teammates.

In 2019, gaming companions were given a more official-sounding title: “esports partner-trainer.” With the announcement of the Standards for Chinese Esports Partner-Trainers, a gaming companion officially became a profession divided into three levels: elementary, intermediate, and advanced.

An “Esports Partner-Trainer Accreditation Platform” launched soon after. On passing a theoretical examination (which tests basic knowledge of the esports industry, professional norms as well as relevant laws and regulations) and a practical evaluation of the chosen genre of expertise, players obtain official accreditation.

The gaming companion industry comprises four main categories: head platforms, guilds, companion shops, and private gaming companions. The first three are intermediary agencies that set clients up with pro-gamers, while private gaming companions find clients on their own.

Head platforms (such as Bixin Play App) are industry leaders that define standards and develop new business strategies. Guilds, meanwhile, bridge live-streaming and companion platforms, while gaming companion shops and private companions exist more or less in a legal grey zone.

Gaming companion shops are intermediaries supported by individual capital, which are virtually unregulated. Private gaming companions leverage the gig economy and often operate under the system’s radar.

They move flexibly on social platforms, which makes it difficult to produce accurate market reports for the industry. According to available data, “10%-20% of the esports game market will be seized by the gaming companion industry.”

Such private services are a hotbed for illegal transactions, notoriously difficult to supervise and govern. However, the number of new companions on the market has continued to grow, and the rivalry between them has steadily intensified.

Players in action during a League of Legends group stage match at the Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, Aug. 27, 2018. Ding Yifan/People Visual

Players in action during a League of Legends group stage match at the Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, Aug. 27, 2018. Ding Yifan/People Visual

Simultaneously, the industry has diversified too: in addition to standard companions employed for their basic gaming skills, there are now companions who cultivate a brand based on their role-playing, voice-acting or artistic talents (such as singing and dancing). Some merely offer to keep lonely gamers company; others even act as virtual lovers.

The type of games for which clients seek accompaniment has also expanded from competitive esports titles to other genres, including simple puzzle games like Gomoku.

Big platforms such as Bixin prohibit minors from registering as gaming companions, though underage gamers account for a sizable chunk of the industry. According to the 2020 Bixin Social Responsibility Report, the platform intercepted 130,000 accreditation requests submitted by minors in 2020 alone.

But by either going private or with help from gaming companion shops, most underage gamers have managed to work their way around the ban.

Ideally, gaming companions should gradually migrate toward guilds and regulated platforms, so the industry can maintain a degree of stability. However, in his four years as a gaming companion, Shao has always worked on his own.

In the beginning, he expanded his client network purely through word-of-mouth. His top server ranking was better advertising than any certificate; it ensured he never lacked clients and did not have to share his profits with a third party.

But dealing with multiple clients is sometimes more trouble than it’s worth. The work is all-encompassing. He rarely went out and had little time to work on his own ranking, which steadily declined. Moreover, scheduling matches with one client meant delaying matches with the rest. Over time, some clients felt neglected and stopped contacting him.

Recalling his busiest days, Shao says he couldn’t chart his own schedule. When he woke up or slept depended solely on his clients. Eventually, the intensity of the game and the pressure to win took a toll on his health.

Late in 2019, a fellow gamer Shao had known for many years asked him to help her boyfriend. Often, he played with the couple for more than eight hours a day but was never paid the fee he was owed.

This friend had fervently vouched for her boyfriend, so Shao put off other clients to spend two months accompanying only them. Though the collaboration was fun, by the time he had racked up 20,000 yuan in fees, the client suddenly broke up with Shao’s friend and disappeared without paying him anything.

It almost broke Shao. Despite his relatively high earnings, he barely had any savings. The abrupt financial hit after two months of work pushed him to try and join a gaming companion shop, but these businesses always check recent rankings and points.

And because of his grueling schedule and poor health, he hadn’t been able to maintain his high rank. What’s more, with only a junior high school education, he couldn’t wrap his head around the registration process for a big platform like Bixin.

Looking back at his career, Shao recognizes that, although he earned far more than other people his age when he was 18, four years later, he had nothing to show for it other than symptoms of burnout, lost time, and an endless list of WeChat contacts.

On Wechat, Shao’s contacts can be divided into three clear groups: other rural gamers who dropped out of school to become companions, like him; clients who still pay for his services; and former clients who no longer speak to him.

When out of work, Shao sometimes offers to play with a client for free, hoping to make a friend who might eventually become a client.

Back at his house, Shao slid his fingers over the keyboard, mouse, and monitor. He was just about to leave to work in customer service at his cousin’s Taobao store.

About the store job, he says his father repeatedly told him: “This is your first real job, so you must stick to it.” Shao concurs. Despite his four years of hard work and perseverance, his family now sees him as a cautionary tale about the dangers of being distracted by idle pursuits.

Someone once asked him: “Did you know that China has an accreditation exam for gaming companions? If you pass, you can get a certificate just like the ones that teachers and journalists have.”

Shao recalls feeling astonished: He had no idea. “If you knew about this in 2019, would you have gone to take the exam and stayed in the industry?” the same person asked.

Shao stayed silent for a moment as he carefully read the announcement on the Esports Partner-Trainer Skills Certification Platform. He responded with a question of his own: “Do you have to travel to take the exam? There’s so much theory. Is 280 yuan the total?”

Perhaps these regulated platforms and the accreditation exam are loose seeds that have always been in his pocket. But then, no one ever helped him plant them in the ground.

Shao Xiaoxi is a pseudonym.

A version of this article originally appeared in La Jeunesse Nonfiction Writing Bazaar advised by Zhang Huiyu of Peking University. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Xue Yongle and Apurva.

(Header image: Ding Yifan/People Visual)